The art of poking fun at politicians
It doesn’t take long for Peter Brookes to decide which of the cartoons from his 23-year-tenure at the Times ranks as his favourite. “That one,” he says quickly.
He points toward a picture of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, who is leaning against a mantelpiece, rifle in hand. It was published after the reports that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine on 17 July last year, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew.
“That’s the best one I’ve ever done,” says Brookes. “It does take a little bit of a leap in the dark because we don’t know who did it, but even if [the Russians] didn’t actually pull the trigger, they provided the wherewithal.”
“It went viral and all that sort of stuff, but that’s not the important thing. It was brutal in its way, and it was about something horrendous. That mattered more to me.”
Next, he mentions his renderings of Alex Salmond as Mickey Mouse. “When he announced that they were going to keep the pound and have the Queen as head of state, I thought: ‘How Mickey Mouse can you get? To be an independent nation that relies on that.’ Also, you can turn his face into Mickey Mouse, with the ears as two sides of the ‘poond coin’. That was fun to do.”
Brooks’ triangular office looks out onto the newsroom of the Times’ brand new premises on the 11th floor of the building known as the ‘Baby Shard’ at London Bridge.
One of the two longer walls in his den is transparent glass, sound-proof so that he can work in silence. The other long wall is covered with several dozen prints of his work.
Brookes gained notoriety for his Nature Notes series, which began in 1996 but no longer appears in the paper. Since 2010, he has been best known for his depictions of Ed Miliband as the hapless Wallace – often alongside his canine sidekick Gromit, who takes on the likeness of the Labour leader’s right-hand man, Ed Balls.
For this, Brookes says Miliband and co have his wife to thank. She was the one who, watching the Labour leadership contest play out on TV in 2010, remarked that Miliband the Younger bore an uncanny resemblance to the plasticine figure. Fittingly, it has stuck ever since.
Then there’s the coalition. David Cameron – with “that wonderful Tory face that I’m sure he polishes each morning after brushing his teeth” – is a public school prefect. Dressed in bow-tie, waistcoat and tails, he takes advantage of his much put-upon ‘fag’ Cleggers, who gets dunked in toilet bowls and told to carry out menial tasks such as polishing shoes, or halving the deficit before prep.
No one is off-limits, and Brookes takes pride in the fact that he isn’t expected to follow the editorial line of the paper. Like a prized columnist, he has free rein to attack any person or decision that he chooses. Notably, he diverged from the Times in his staunch opposition to the Iraq war, and has described Tony Blair as “crazed and manic.”
But there is a sliver of good news for some of Brookes’ current targets. Defeat at the polls or the end of their time in government might come with a silver lining. “What I find now is that I’m contemplating the end of all these people who I’ve been drawing as something else. I can’t [draw Nick Clegg as Cameron’s fag] during the campaign, so that’s probably the end of it. And if Miliband doesn’t win, he’ll be out on his ear, so I won’t be drawing [him as Wallace] anymore.”
What if he wins? Will it be Prime Minister Wallace? “Well, if I can get away with it. I think there are one or two rumblings from Aardman.”
Earlier this year, the London Evening Standard published a story about the company behind the Wallace and Gromit films, Aardman Animations, and how it was weighing up legal action that would prevent Brookes from continuing to draw Miliband as Wallace. Wallace’s creator, Nick Park, is understood to be a loyal Labour supporter.
But Brookes says that Park had been “perfectly happy with it” and “very nice to me” when they met in person about a year ago. Sure enough, when I call Aardman, I’m told that the company finds it “flattering”, “funny” and there is certainly no writ about to land on Brookes’ doormat. Sorry, Ed.
Some politicians seem to like Brookes’ cartoons of them, brutal as they are. Michael Gove and his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, are said to have inquired about buying them, presumably in order to put them up at home. But when I email Vine to ask, she says she’d prefer not to comment.
Brookes, for his part, says he sells originals through a gallery and so doesn’t ever know whether particular politicians have bought them.
“And I don’t really want to know,” he adds. “They do buy cartoons – some in particular are very vain about these things. If you didn’t draw them, they’d probably be upset. Clegg always says he finds it very amusing, but what else could he say?”
It’s early when we meet, before the paper’s morning conference which Brookes will attend in order to spark ideas for the day’s cartoon. After that, he listens to news on the radio, watches TV bulletins and by 2 p.m. hopes to have an idea of what he’s going to do.
He shows rough sketches to a couple of colleagues who act as helpful barometers. Then, he draws a pencil outline of the final version onto tracing paper and transfers that to watercolour paper. He inks the outline before using watercolours to fill it all in. A quick blow-dry with his trusty hairdryer and it’s finished, usually between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Now 71, Brookes says he finds the process more tiring than he used to. It takes him longer, too, so he doesn’t have time to leave the office for lunch anymore. But with age, he says, “the more tricks you’ve got up your sleeve to get an idea across. That only comes with experience and time, so things work both for and against you.”
He also claims to be enjoying his work more than ever. Having produced the Putin picture (his favourite piece of work) only last year, and having picked up yet another Press Awards gong for Cartoonist of the Year in March (his own mantelpiece must be buckling under the weight of the various What the Papers Say, Political Cartoon Society, Cartoon Art Trust and Society of Editors National Press Awards statuettes that he’s received over the years) it makes sense that he doesn’t feel like packing it all in just yet.
He jokes that he’s probably only got a few more years left before he “collapses in a heap,” but adds: “I have no plans to retire. They’ll have to carry me out.”
For now, though, there’s the small matter of a General Election – which, thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, looks set to be his last as a regular cartoonist for the Times. And his last as “the permanent opposition,” as he puts it.
With his professional hat on (his actual hat, incidentally, is a handsome fedora from Locke & Co; black, like the rest of his clothes) he says a political cartoonist’s job is to be “the permanent opposition” to every party and politician, whether they’re in government or not. But, personally, he has admitted to being a long-time Labour voter. It would be an irony, then, if the man who had done as much as anyone to erode the current Labour leader’s public image also ended up voting for him.
“It’s a funny thing,” Brookes says. “I don’t vote for a leader. I know that’s what you end up doing and you put them in, but I can remember voting for Neil Kinnock and hoping to hell that he didn’t get in. It would be the same with [Miliband]. I’d far rather anyone other than Miliband got in, but you still vote for the overall tenor of the party. Anyone who knifes his brother to get where he wants to be doesn’t get my vote, whatever they do.”
So, is he one of those people who thinks that the older brother would have been serenely steering Labour toward a majority by this stage? “It’s easy to forget we’d now be tearing him apart if he was Labour leader. After that banana picture, I always drew him with a banana. Maybe I still would. We’d still ridicule him and say he’s geeky.”
At this point, Danny Finkelstein, associate editor of the Times, former political advisor to William Hague and occasional Newsnight guest, pokes his head round Brookes’ office door, takes one of the cans of Diet Coke from a plastic bag he’s carrying and deposits it on the desk. “How kind of you! Thanks Danny,” says Brookes. “The machine was busted,” he explains, once Finkelstein has left. “He and I are the two huge consumers of Diet Coke in the building.”
As the morning conference draws nearer and our time comes to an end, I remark that Brookes seems to have found himself a pretty good way to make a living. “Some days, if you asked me that question I might fling the hairdryer at you in a Ferguson-like way,” he says, probably joking. “But it is a brilliant way to make a living. Having your say, that’s the main thing. Having the privilege of sounding off and not being told what to do, and then drawing it. Drawing is what I love to do.”
He might easily have ended up in the RAF. His father was a squadron leader and Brookes joined a pilot-training programme after leaving school but was “kicked out” two-and-a-half years into the three-year course. “I wasn’t exactly suited to it,” he admits. “I was the only one there who couldn’t drive a car.”
He ended up going to art college, first to Manchester and then to the Central School of Art in London, where he would later teach for a time. There was work for the New Statesman, Radio Times, Spectator and a short-lived spell at the Times, where he returned in 1992 and has remained ever since. “I can’t imagine there’s anything worse than being slotted into the wrong pigeon hole,” he says. “But, luckily, it worked out for me.”
Those of us who enjoy his daily dose of humour, wit and cruelty are very glad that it did.